Boiling down maple syrup

March 16, 2010 § 4 Comments

I’m back! Did you miss me? Well, I’ve been spending all my spare moments out collecting sap, or getting garden beds ready – or grading papers, but let’s not discuss that.

Anyway, since Sofya has already explained how to tap maple trees for sap, I’ll provide the basic guidelines for boiling it down into syrup.

Not that you really need guidelines, because, really, when we started doing this about 25 years ago we had no idea what we were doing, and this was back before google and stuff, so…well, my sister and I saw these inexplicable droplets forming on the tips of broken maple-boughs, and when mum told us it was maple sap, we got a notion to try making syrup. So, I pounded a teensy hole in the side of a tree with a hammer and a screwdriver; then we inserted the hollow stick from a blow-pop which we happened to have about, and hung a little cup under it. A day later we had about a cup of sap, which we put in a pan on the woodstove and cooked down into about 1/2 tsp sugar. So exciting! But then dad got in on the syrup-making thing, and made some proper taps, and tapped fifteen trees or so. From then on, spring in our house meant there was a perpetual cast-iron pot filled with steaming, sticky sap on the stove; the walls sometimes sweated with it.

Since then I have waxed scientific – which means, I google things. So here are some important tips that will allow you to have not just maple syrup or sugar, but GOOD maple syrup:

1) Black maples and sugar maples produce sap with a higher sugar content than red or silver maples, but you can use any maple tree, really.

2) Last year we got four pints of syrup from only two trees – but they are large, over 100 years old.

3) However, red and silver maples also bud earlier than black or sugar maples.

4) Why is this a problem? Well, because once the buds begin to form, the sap takes on an odd bitter taste that you won’t notice until it has been boiled down to syrup. It is on account of this “bud-flavored” sap that I, for many years, thought I didn’t actually much care for real maple syrup. Now I know better!

5) Strain, strain, strain your sap! Strain it first before you boil it; then strain it again once it starts to darken. Various invisible particles of impurity will begin to be visible as you cook it down; these not only impair the appearance; they also detract from the flavor. Oh, and you will want to get the flies out. There will always be flies, I’m afraid.

6) Use cheesecloth, preferably, to strain: I put mine inside a colander. You can also use nylon stockings.  Many fabrics will not work, though, as they retard the moisture, instead of allowing it to seep through. If you think you have a workable loose-mesh fabric, experiment with it first with water.

7) Pour into a LARGE, preferably LARGE SURFACE AREA pot. Stainless steel or enamel are best, I think. Much as I love cast iron, I find that it imparts a slightly metallic flavor to the syrup.

8) If you are doing this outside, over an open fire, good for you! But a few things to consider:

a) not every pot was made to withstand direct flame. You may end up at best spoiling your pot, at worst spoiling your pot AND your sap.

b) DO NOT NOT NOT USE A WASHTUB! IT IS MADE OF GALVANIZED STEEL, AND COULD FLAKE OFF INTO THE SAP, UNDER HIGH HEAT. Excuse the capital letters and the melodrama, but in case you’re just skimming this thing I wanted to make sure you saw that, so you don’t go holding me responsible if you come to a bad end.

c) You will still want to finish off the sap indoors, once you’ve gotten lots of it cooked down and it’s turned a lovely golden-brown.

9) If you are doing this inside, we found that a large broiling pan (steel or enamel) sitting over two burners is the way to go. But we still finished it off in a separate, smaller pot. Also, be advised: the house will grow very humid! Which is fine with me, as I am essentially a creature of the tropics. But you might want to get a de-humidifier going.

10) As it boils, scum will rise to the top. Scoop this off with a slotted spoon or small sieve.

11) Gradually, it will turn a pale gold – then perhaps a dark gold – and finally, maybe, a maple-syrupy-copper-mahogany shade.

12) The ┬ádarker the syrup the stronger the flavor – yet, oddly, the light-colored syrups are considered the highest grade, and cost the most (well over a dollar an ounce). I think this may be because it is harder to get; this year, our earlier sap produced a thick, pale golden syrup, while the later saps made a darker syrup. However, I am waiting, now that the sap has started running again (it slowed there for a while when the nights were warm) to see whether it has to do ith outdoor temperature, not earliness or lateness.

13) Since it take about 40 gallons (or, if you have black or sugar maples, 37) to make one gallon of syrup, you want to boil a LOT. So, as your sap cooks down, keep adding more and more. You’ll need to have at least an inch at the bottom, still, towards the end, for your thermometer to register.

14) Why thermometer? Because the best way to tell whether your sap has become syrup is for you to boil it to JUST the right heat. That’s 220 degrees. You will want either a cool digital thermometer like Sofya’s, or an old-fashioned candy thermometer like mine. It has to be able to sit IN the sap, so an ordinary thermometer will NOT do.

15) By the way, almost EVERY site I checked for advice on how hot to get my sap just coyly said “seven degrees past the boiling point of water.” But I am telling you without all that rigmarole: 220 degrees! Even though seven degrees past the boiling point of water is actually 219…I think that extra degree gives an added depth and viscosity to the syrup, which is most appealing. Now, aren’t I nice, to be telling you that?

16) IN case you DON’T have a candy thermometer (and we never used one, ever, back in the days of yore), you can tell when your syrup is nearly syrup when it starts to really foam and bubble wildly. Then, wait a few minutes, regularly testing your syrup by dropping a bit of it on a cool plate, and seeing whether it is the right consistency.

17) It helps to stir during this time, but it’s not necessary, if you have a good stainless steel or enamel pot.

18) Once it has finished, remove from heat. Let it cool a bit and strain it again.

19) Store in a glass or plastic container ( we use mason jars) in the fridge . It will stay fresh and good for about six months.

20) Scrape the pot with a spoon and eat the sugary bits, especially if you have given up sugar for Lent and are doing this just because you hate to see things go to waste, or because you don’t consider maple sugar to be the sort of sugar you’re talking about, or just because you forgot, and didn’t remember until it was too late. Oops!

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